Two islands —Buddo and Bundal— off the coast of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, have been caught in a feud between provincial and federal government authorities in recent years. One side argues they could have a big climate relevance, while the other proposes it as the site for a new development project.
A push to protect the mangrove forests of Pakistan is also based around these islands by environmentalists who highlight their significance in protecting a major city like Karachi from extreme climate events. Others, however, feel that they have unnecessarily become the focus of mangrove preservation efforts.
Physicist Ahmad Shabbar started looking into the islands in 2020 after the government passed an ordinance to set up an authority for island development. Shabbar said that fishermen believed that development on these islands was not a good idea and found that previously projects had also been proposed on the site.
Shabbar, who founded the Pakistan Maholiati Tahaffuz Movement, a political movement to safeguard the environment, along with a group of environmentalists in September 2021 submitted a petition in the Sindh High Court, a local court, to safeguard the Buddo and Bundal islands.
In February of this year, the two islands were declared protected forests by the provincial government on the basis of court orders.
Sindh Forest and Wildlife Department’s Chief Conservator Riaz Wagan said the islands are of great importance because they are located very close to the coast of Karachi, the economic hub of Pakistan.
“These are very precious lands, very close to the city therefore they are very precious. Everyone has an eye on them,” said Wagan.
According to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Pakistan, the total area of mangrove cover between the two islands is 10,000 hectares. It’s also a breeding ground for green turtles, shrimp, and the IUCN declares it as a site with “high priority” for conservation.
In the face of extreme tides, the mangrove ecosystems in the islands would absorb most of the water, preventing major impacts to the city’s population. “It is only these trees that will stop a tsunami,” said Wagan.
Pakistan can rely on an engineering structure as a safeguard, which is often a costly option, or use nature as a barrier such as these mangroves, Wagan added.
Architect and environmentalist Tariq Alexander Qaiser, who has visited and documented the islands for 15 years, explained that there are three ecosystems on these islands: mangrove forests in the middle, sand banks — sand deposits created by currents or waves — on the seaward side and mud flats — muddy area that is visible depending on the tides — on the estuary side. All three ecosystems are completely interlinked.
“One depends on the other, so if you destroy one, you destroy all three,” said Qaiser.
Pakistan’s coastal cities such as Karachi are severely threatened by climate impacts. In the last 20 years, tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea (where Karachi is located) have become 10 times more likely, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department. Nature-based adaptation measures, such as mangrove protection, could help the city resist these impacts.
The UN’s scientific body on climate change — known as the IPCC — recognizes that effective adaptation measures based on ecosystems “can reduce a range of climate change risks” and add “multiple co-benefits”, according to a recent landmark report.
Feud for protection for mangroves
In August 2020, President Arif Alvi of the then national ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party promulgated the Pakistan Islands Development Authority Ordinance (PIDA) for the development and management of the islands.
According to Pakistani news site Dawn, this meant that PIDA would “act as another land-owning agency in Karachi and would perform functions of a fully empowered local government”.
As per the report, after the ordinance was promulgated, the president met with and “discussed the fate” of the island with Pakistani real estate tycoons and businessmen. The federal government had planned to build a new city infrastructure on the islands, the site reported.
The local government of Sindh province had opposed this action. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairperson of the provincial ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, termed the move to be an “illegal annexation of Sindh’s islands”.
There were reports of meetings with development authorities. However, the ordinance lapsed without approval of the parliament before any progress was made and no development took place.
As per the Forest Act 1927, the provincial government has the right to declare a forest as protected, in which they have proprietary rights. This power has been used to establish control over trees, whose timber, fruit or other non-wood products have revenue-raising potential.
While provincial and federal government authorities tussled over who owned the islands, environmentalists approached the court for the legal protection of the islands on environmental grounds.
They found that a 2010 notification by the Sindh government had excluded the area of the two islands as protected forests. In their petition, they called for these islands to be included in the notification.
Sindh’s chief conservator said the areas were already protected. However, an advantage of notifying them as protected forests now was that they were brought under the GPS coordinate system which meant that now they could be located on a map.
Increasing climate resilience
If a tsunami or a tropical cyclone was to hit the city of Karachi, it would hit the islands first and slowly reach the land afterwards, Wagan explained. The forests act as a type of “shield” for the urban area, which grants protection against extreme weather events.
This effect has already been documented in the past. The IUCN found that in the 2004 tsunami of Sri Lanka, two people died in the village of Kapuhenwala which is surrounded by mangroves and scrub forest. In contrast, 6,000 died in the village of Wanduruppa without these forests.
Pakistan has not been struck by a tsunami since 1945, but cyclones are more frequent, especially with increasing climate impacts.
The most significant importance of the islands is the protection against storms, according to University of Karachi’s geography department meritorious professor Syed Jamil Hassan Kazmi. He said the islands reduce the speed of a cyclone before it reaches the metropolis.
If a cyclone were to hit Karachi from the Bay of Bengal, Bundal Island would be an ideal barrier particularly to safeguard the DHA area, a posh locality in Karachi that extends till the coast. It would not provide the same protection if a storm came from Oman, from the southwestern side, Kazmi added.
The mangroves also have a very important role for biodiversity. Kazmi explained that the roots of mangroves are spaces for juvenile fish to grow. “So if you cut mangroves, you’re not only cutting off the break of the waves but you’re also getting rid of the habitat for the fish,” he said.
Environmentalist Qaiser added that islands like Bundal and others along the coast protect the shores of Karachi from massive waves and winds. This in turn protects fishing boats which protects a source of human livelihood.
“The mangroves are a nursery to all our fisheries […] So much of the life of the ocean is dependent on mangroves,” he said.
He also underscored the significance of the oxygen supply that the mangroves provide to the city areas. Over the Indian Ocean, wind blows largely from the south west, picking up oxygen from plankton and mangroves and carrying it all over the Korangi and Landhi areas of Karachi.
WWF Pakistan Technical Advisor for Marine Fisheries Muhammad Moazzam Khan, who has been visiting the islands for nearly 50 years, said that he had not seen much economic activity on them.
There is no kind of habitation on the islands except for some fishermen, he added. In some seasons, the islands are used for falcon catching. Khan argued that the two islands had been the subject of “unnecessary media hype”.
“There are hundreds of mangrove islands, this is not any different than those in terms of ecology [and] in terms of mangrove cover,” he said, adding that there was nothing specific to these islands that required urgent protection.
Journalist and environmentalist Afia Salam said that as the area was uninhabited, real estate developers remained interested in them. However, questioned where supplies would come from and where car access would be provided from if a resort city was to be built on these islands.
Qaiser added that if development was to take place on these islands, a causeway would need to be built from Karachi in order to interlink them.
“It’s a very simple difference, make a nature park of as many of these islands around Karachi,” said Qaiser.
He said the way forward would be to make Bundal Island and the adjoining Khiprianwala Island into nature reserves or marine protected areas.
As per the IUCN, a marine protected area is a “clearly defined geographic space, recognized, dedicated and managed through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.
Salam said that there was a delta full of islands and explained that for an area to be a marine protected area it has to offer a unique feature such as the Astola Islands, Pakistan’s only marine protected area, which has native species such as the Russell’s viper.
Qaiser said he was specifically pushing for the protection of Bundal Island because of the size of the island as well as the ability to grow dense mangroves in the area. “It is an oxygen producing machine that no other mega city will ever have,” he said.
“When you have children and when they have children, they will remember the lack of action that we took at this time today. We have a closing window (of time),” Qaiser concluded.
*An earlier version of the story said Karachi is Pakistan’s capital. This was updated on May 27 to clarify Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city but not its capital.